Reinterpreting Moroni 10:32?

Note: The following was originally printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

Listen to a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast on this topic: Part 1   Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5  February 13-17, 2017

By Bill McKeever

The writer of  the last book of the Book of Mormon, Moroni, the son of Mormon, “seals up these records” by saying a “few words by exhortation” to his brethren, the Lamanites (which, according to Mormonism, are the ancestors of the Native Americans). The famous “challenge” that missionaries of the LDS Church offer potential members, as well as critics, is located in Moroni 10. It directs seekers to ask God if “these things are not true; and if ye shall ask, with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

I personally do not believe that this is an appropriate test for discovering truth. Requesting a subjective feeling is hardly the proper way to determine if the truth claims in the Book of Mormon are actually true. Suppose someone were to pray about this unique LDS scripture and determine that God was saying the book was not true. Should we really expect Latter-day Saints to abandon their faith over another’s alleged negative answer to Moroni’s prayer? From an LDS perspective, an answer like this reflects only on the person who is not convinced that the book is from God and not the book itself.

Moroni 10 also contains an amazing statement in verse 32, a statement that I (and others) see as an impossible task for any sinful human to achieve. It reads:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

To understand the admonition found in this passage, it is important to know that Mormonism’s version of God does bestow grace upon humankind without expecting anything in return. This “grace” is purely unconditional and allows everyone to be resurrected from the dead. However, the grace needed to forgive Mormons of their sins is filled with the condition of obedience. This is clearly illustrated in Doctrine and Covenants 1:32. It reads, “Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments shall be forgiven.”

Forgiveness of sins is absolutely essential for the believer who hopes to achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom. According to 12th President Spencer W. Kimball:

If one wishes to be forgiven of his sins and reach the celestial kingdom and have associations with the Father and his Son, [he must] repent and serve and do the proper works…. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 69. Brackets and ellipsis in original).

The grace that forgives a Latter-day Saint is not the same as what the Bible describes. According to page 16 of the Old Testament Seminary Teacher Resource Manual, a correlated text book published in 2003, the atonement not only provides for the resurrection of all mankind but also adds that the atonement “can also cleanse us from personal sins and help us become like God.” One of the references cited as support is Moroni 10:32. From this we see that the grace spoken of in Moroni 10:32 is not the grace that merely provides a general resurrection but a grace that allows Mormons to be forgiven of their sins once the conditions of verse 32 is met.

Mormon leaders as well as church manuals and periodicals have been fairly consistent when explaining the difference between the unconditional grace that resurrects and the grace that provides exaltation when certain conditions are met. For example, while speaking in general conference in October 1986, Gordon B. Hinckley taught this distinction:

I believe in the grace of God made manifest through His sacrifice and redemption, and I believe that through His atonement, without any price on our part, each of us is offered the gift of resurrection from the dead. I believe further that through that sacrifice there is extended to every man and woman, every son and daughter of God, the opportunity for eternal life and exaltation in our Father’s kingdom, as we hearken and obey His commandments (“The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1986, pp. 50-51).

Mormon leaders, manuals and periodicals have also been fairly consistent when explaining that compliance with the conditions of Moroni 10:32 is essential if this grace, the grace to forgive and provide exaltation, is to be achieved. This is clearly spelled out on page 39 of the Preparing for Exaltation Teacher’s Manual (1998):

All people, regardless of their level of righteousness, will be saved from death because of the Resurrection of Christ. However, in order to attain the highest degree of glory in the resurrection, we need to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32).

Again we see Moroni 10:32 as the source for this conclusion. The next sentence explains what this involves:

 We come unto Christ by having faith in him, repenting of our sins, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, receiving other saving priesthood ordinances, obeying the commandments, and keeping the covenants we make with our Heavenly Father. How we live does make a difference.

A number of citations can be produced that concur with this interpretation. For example, the following statement found in the October, 2006 issue of Ensign, written by BYU professor Clyde J. Williams:

The perfect relationship between the atoning grace of Christ and the obedient efforts of mankind is powerfully stated by Nephi: “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Furthermore, we are invited to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” When we deny ourselves “of all ungodliness,” then and only “then is his grace sufficient” for us (Moroni 10:32). (“Plain and Precious Truths Restored,” Ensign, October 2006, p. 53)

In an Ensign article titled, “Earthly Choices, Eternal Consequences,” Chad D. Richardson, an area Seventy, wrote,

Moroni beautifully concludes the Book of Mormon by inviting all to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him’ (Moroni 10:32). To do so, we must deny ourselves of all ungodliness, especially unchecked carnal appetites. We must love God with all our might, mind and strength, putting him above worldly approval. We will then be sanctified through the grace of Christ. (Ensign, July 2004, p. 21. Italics in original.)

I would be the first to admit that a desire to deny oneself of all ungodliness is a noble goal. However, I have spoken with many Mormons who admit that this is not going to be a practical achievement during their lifetimes. Oftentimes, when merely citing Moroni 10:32, Mormons are quick to insist that “nobody is perfect,” which seems to be what this verse implies.

When Moroni 10:32 is cited by LDS leaders and manuals, it is many times assumed that the reader already understands what words like “deny,” “all,” and “ungodliness” have traditionally meant in the English language. However, in his article titled “The Divine Power of Grace” that was published in the December 2016 edition of Ensign magazine, Seventy James J. Hamula offers some commentary that appears to reject what has been a traditional interpretation of this passage. He begins his article by offering a traditional Mormon definition of grace from the LDS Bible dictionary:

The main idea of the word [grace] is divine means of help or strength. … Grace is an enabling power” (“Grace”). It enables the recipient to do and to be what he or she cannot do and cannot be if left to his or her own means. All of us need such an enabling power. We are the sons and daughters of God. As such, we have the potential to become like Him. (p. 53. Brackets and parenthesis in original.)

Hamula states that LDS members “need a divine power of grace that can transform our souls with all of our current weaknesses and deficiencies into gods.” He went on to say that “this is exactly how Christ attained His fullness” (p. 54) and listed five “principles” that must be found in a Mormon’s life if grace is to fill them. These are faith in Christ, repentance, humility, diligence, and obedience. In the section under obedience, Hamula cites Moroni 10:32 and offers the following commentary:

Without diminishing the Lord’s injunction to keep the commandments or Moroni’s injunction to deny ourselves of all ungodliness, we should understand that grace is not dependent on our perfect compliance. If grace were dependent on our perfectly keeping the commandments or perfectly denying ourselves of all ungodliness, our persistent imperfection in mortality would forever preclude us from acquiring grace. Grace is intended, after all, to enable us to more perfectly keep the commandments and pursue a godlier walk, until we attain the full stature of Christ. (Emphasis mine.)

First of all, Hamula’s interpretation does “diminish”  Moroni’s injunction to deny ourselves of all ungodliness. How can this really be denied? This phrase has always had an understood meaning within the context of Mormonism and it is not what Hamula is suggesting. Furthermore, he seems to acknowledge the same problem Christians like myself have noticed for years. Our sinfulness makes complying with this passage an impossibility. He continues his thought in the next paragraph:

The Lord’s injunction to keep the commandments and Moroni’s injunction to deny ourselves of all ungodliness must be understood as doing these things the best we can. While our actions are important, more important are the intentions of our hearts.

But why would this interpretation be necessary if 1 Nephi 3:7 in the Book of Mormon is a truth claim to be believed? In this passage, Nephi insisted that “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish them.” Hamula seems to place his listeners in a very confusing, if not precarious, position. He cites from a book that claims how Mormons are quite capable of keeping any commandment God so chooses to give while, at the same time, excusing members who don’t comply with the requirement.

Mormon leaders of the past who seemed to understand the unmerciful nature of what is called “Celestial Law” taught that compliance with this principle is not something to trifle with for anyone who hopes to achieve celestial exaltation, or godhood. For example, in a December 1986 article titled “The Divine Law of Tithing,” Robert D. Hales wrote, “The law of tithing is part of a celestial law which we must live if we are to attain eternal life and exaltation in the celestial kingdom. ‘For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory. … And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.’ (D&C 88:22, 38–39.)”

If failing to perfectly comply with the “law of tithing” will cause a Mormon to forfeit celestial exaltation, wouldn’t this also be true of any other “law” a Mormon is expected to follow, including the requirements found in Moroni 10:32? If Mormonism is true, it would seem that following Hamula’s counsel is risky indeed.